The Algarve, Portugal’s Sunny South Coast

By Rick Steves
Beach in Algarve region, Portugal
Pristine, hidden beaches along the south coast are the main attraction in Portugal's Algarve. (photo: Rick Steves)
Beach in Salema, Portugal
This is about as busy as things get in Salema, my favorite Algarve beach town. (photo: Rick Steves)

Since Phoenician times, octopuses have been the main catch for the villagers of Salema, located on the sunny south coast of Portugal. And the fishing process has changed little in several thousand years. At the crack of dawn, I wait at the beach for my local friend, Sebastian, who's agreed to take me out to check the pots. As Sebastian pushes his boat into the sea, he helps me board. His hands are thickly calloused…mine are mostly used for a laptop. My white and tender feet are slathered with sunscreen; his are like hooves as they grab the crackled wooden surface of his garishly colored and well-worn boat. Vivid contrasts make vivid travel memories.

The barnacle-encrusted pottery jars stacked all over town are much more than rustic souvenirs: They're octopus traps. They're tied about 15 feet apart in long lines and dropped offshore. (And ancient, unwritten tradition allocates different chunks of undersea territory to each Salema family.) Octopuses, thinking these are a cozy place to set an ambush, climb in and get ambushed themselves. When the fishermen hoist them in, the stubborn octopuses hang on — unaware they've made their final mistake.

Sebastian hauls in the line as the old pots are noisily welcomed aboard. Water splashes everywhere, but there's no sign of an octopus. Sebastian grabs his bleach bottle, gives each pot a little squirt and a maced octopus flops angrily into the boat. It's bound for the market and, who knows, perhaps my dinner plate tonight.

From the boat, I survey this stretch of the Algarve, the coastline that extends all the way across southern Portugal. To the west, just out of view: the rugged cliffs of Cape Sagres, the "Land's End of Europe," jutting out from Portugal's southwest corner. Just east of here lie sandy beach resorts stretching between the relatively big cities of Lagos and Faro; beyond them, near the Spanish border, are lagoon estuaries and the inviting town of Tavira.

Unfortunately, most of the Algarve is going the way of the Spanish Costa del Sol: paved, packed, and pretty stressful. It's become over-developed, with giant condo-type "villas" hovering over just about every beach with road access.

But one bit of old Algarve magic still glitters quietly in the sun: Sebastian's home town, Salema. At the end of a small road off the main coastal highway, this fishing village has three streets, a handful of restaurants and bars, English and German menus and signs (including bullfight ads for "Stierkampf"), a lovely beach, and lots of sun.

A highlight of any Salema day is watching the fishing boats come and go as a tractor drags them in along the beach. Travelers and locals alike ignore an ever-growing circle of modern condo-type hotels, apartments, and time-share villas up the hillside — if you don't mind arriving without a reservation, skip the hotels and head for the lane where a handful of fisherfolk still happily rent out rooms (quartos) to foreign guests.

From Salema, it's a short drive to my next-favorite spot on the coast: historic Sagres, on the southwestern tip of Portugal. This was the spot closest to the edge of our flat earth in the days before Columbus. Prince Henry the Navigator — determined to broaden Europe's horizons — sent sailors ever farther into the unknown. He ran a navigator's school at Cape Sagres. It was from here that Henry carefully debriefed the many shipwrecked and frustrated explorers as they washed ashore.

Today, at Sagres, fishermen cast from its towering crags, local merchants sell homemade and seaworthy sweaters, and daredevil windsurfers skitter across the windy stretches of water. Here, travelers like me gaze, mesmerized, out at the horizon, where medieval Europe figured the sea dropped into mysterious oblivion.

The Algarve is just the place for some rigorous rest and intensive relaxation…where the well-traveled wind down to local speeds, work on tans, and enjoy some very fresh octopus.